Words by Stan Sy
When Justin Timberlake released “Filthy” last Friday, he essentially gave himself and his new album, Man of the Woods, an entrance theme—a walkout song, if you will. It’s loud, bombastic, and braggadocious—not unlike 2017 in pop music. After all, 2017 was the year when Cardi B became the first female rapper to top the Billboard Hot 100 in 19 years. The fact that Cardi ousted Taylor Swift, of all artists, adds to the audacity of last year’s pop music landscape. “Filthy”—a track that sounds every bit like a wrestling entrance theme, or something you’d walk out to if you were delivering a TED talk—feels like it’s cut from that same cloth of fearlessness.
And if you need any more convincing, all you have to do is look at the single’s cover art.
But more than just that, there’s something about the song that screams, “Welcome to the future!” right in your face. Granted, JT is no stranger to techno-pop. It was most evident in 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, which was arguably the album that put Timberlake over the top as one of pop music’s greats. (Also, can you believe that FutureSex/LoveSounds is already as old as a pre-teen with prepubescent hormones and maybe some bad acne? Damn.)
What stands out the most about “Filthy” is how robotic it sounds, from the beat to some of Justin’s vocals. It’s not monotonous or devoid of any feelings, but it just feels like the type of music you’d imagine versions of humanity who live underwater will have somehow sent to Timbaland and Danja from the year 3000.
But is this what pop music in 2018 is supposed to sound like? Is a more robotic palette the trend to expect this year, the way Latino elements, mumble rap, or emo rap all broke through into the mainstream in the last couple of years? Or is Justin experimenting here, paving the way for the next big wave in pop music? It’s interesting to look at it from this perspective because last year was a year of experimentation and coming-out parties.
It was the year when Liam Payne and Harry Styles finally released their breakout singles—and in Styles’ case, proved that he really is the One Direction alum to follow in Timberlake’s post-boyband trajectory. Harry seemed to have the most versatile vocals in One Direction during his time with the group. And while he wasn’t the first among them to release a single and an album, Styles was the one who went and pursued other projects outside of music, much like Timberlake, who eventually became a multi-platform superstar.
It was also a year when using your music as a platform to resist the political status quo was in vogue, instead of subversive. And it was also the year when most of us finally rid ourselves of “Closer” as our LSS. (Thanks, DJ Khaled!)
That said, there is no intelligent way to predict what we’re supposed to expect from pop music in 2018. Sure, it’ll be trippy if Asian elements became the new trend that every producer and their mother began latching on to. K-Pop, in particular, has owned rap’s interpolation into its standard pop music as its own genre. If acts like BTS and EXO are any indication, it seems that the West is already taking pages out of their playbook. Look no further than Rihanna’s guest verses on Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty” and N.E.R.D.’s “Lemon” from last year.
Or it could be the year EDM gets an even bigger dose of emo into its genre, the same way hip-hop did over the last couple of years. We already saw it in the anguish of Selena Gomez’s vocals on Kygo’s “It Ain’t Me” and in the longing in Alessia Cara’s verses on Zedd’s “Stay.” Even Martin Garrix joined in on the fun by making us dance mindlessly, while Dua Lipa tells us how she’s scared to be lonely.
Or we could just keep praying for another Carly Rae Jepsen release, where she fills our hearts with the 80’s inspired pop we need but don’t deserve.
The truth is, “Filthy” might not even be all that groundbreaking when we look back on how this year sounded in eleven months. After all, Daft Punk made electronic music cute way before Justin Timberlake realized he wanted out of *NSYNC. But as the first major single by a mainstream commercial artist to get released this year, people will look at “Filthy” and try to grasp at straws, figuring out how it impacted the landscape of pop music this year.
Whether or not “Filthy” ultimately innovates anything, Justin Timberlake just kicked the doors open and brought us to this year’s version of a brave new world.
Welcome to the future.
FEATURED IMAGE: Original photos via artists’ official pages